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Frequently Asked Questions about

Biomedical Research

Written by Tiffany Wang, with comments by John

Ryu and Amanda Harper

What is the difference between basic and clinical research?

Basic research refers to research conducted in order to increase our knowledge of the world around us. With basic research in the biomedical sciences, scientists attempt to understand the interaction between individual molecules, the genetic basis behind diseases, the regulation of different metabolic pathways, etc. Basic research is also commonly known as “wet lab” or “bench” research because most experiments are conducted in a laboratory stocked with chemicals, cell cultures, pipettes, etc.

In contrast, clinical research refers to research that is more applied in nature. Clinical researchers attempt to answer questions regarding the effectiveness of treatments, medications, preventative measures, and more. Clinical research often involves administering surveys in a hospital or observing and following up on patients who have undergone a certain procedure, analyzing patient data for trends, etc.  At a large research-focused university, there are numerous opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in either basic science or clinical research.

Do I need to do research to get into medical school?

No! While there are many pre-requisites to entering medical school, research is not one of them. The exception would be if you are applying to an MD/PhD program, where research experience is a crucial component of your application and will be heavily addressed during your interviews. However, if you are applying for regular MD programs, medical schools just want to see that you have participated in activities that you are passionate about. If research is one of those interests, great! However, if conducting research does not appeal to you, that is perfectly okay. During interviews, medical schools will be able to tell which applicants truly love their research, and which simply worked in a lab as a resume-enhancer. If you are working on a research project that you find uninteresting, you are not doing a service to yourself or your faculty mentor who is putting a lot of time and effort into your training. Explore other areas of interest (i.e. volunteering, teaching, sports, student organizations), where getting involved will also speak volumes to admission offices.

If I’m pre-med, what kind of research lab should I work in?

Again, if you are pre-med, you are not required to have research experience to get into medical school. However, if you already know that you are interested in research or want to see if research is right for you, know that there is no “right” research lab to work in. Many pre-med students choose to work in biomedical research labs because they are truly interested in physiology, microbiology, genetics, etc. However, other students want to become doctors, but are also interested in economics, French, anthropology, or physics. It is great if you wish to conduct research in a non-biomedical field—in fact, it may even set you apart from other applicants. Medical schools want to see that you have developed a strong work ethic, sense of creativity, and critical thinking skills—and conducting research in any subject will help you develop and demonstrate those skills!

What classwork is required to work in a biomedical research lab?

There is no set-in-stone classwork required to work in a biomedical research lab (basic or clinical). However, most professors will expect that you have basic knowledge of—or have taken introductory coursework in—chemistry and biology. If you are working in microbiology lab, some professors may prefer that you take an introductory microbiology class (such as Microbiology 4000 or 4100 at OSU) before working in their lab. Similarly, if you are working in a molecular genetics lab, it may be helpful to have taken a genetics class (such as MolGen 4500). Some professors also like it when students have prior lab experience, which can include previous research positions or lab classes you have taken. Keep in mind that once you begin working in a lab, your faculty mentor will help train you in the proper lab techniques. You will also be reading a lot of background literature, so you will be learning a lot once you get started!

Where do I start when looking for professors whom I would be interested in working with?

Here are a few great resources to consider:

  • Peer Research Contacts: Here’s a list of the Undergraduate Research Office’s Peer Research Contacts (PRC), which are a group of diverse undergraduates who have experience doing undergraduate research. They would be happy to answer any questions you have about getting started in undergraduate research! The PRC’s are listed by field of research, so you can also ask about research in the field you are interest in.

  • Your professors and teaching assistants: Was there a class that you loved, with a professor or TA that sparked your interest? Consider speaking with them about a potential research position in the lab. Even if your professors are not conducting research in your field of interest, they may know other faculty who are, and they can point you in the right direction.

  • Take time and browse through faculty department websites, which often post lists of faculty members and descriptions of their research, previous publications, etc. Here are some good places to start:

When drafting emails, faculty members do not want to read: “Hey! Can I work in your lab?”  Research faculty much prefer seeing:  “Hi, I am very interested in your work on modulating dendritic cell antigen presentation for more effective anti-viral responses.  By chance, would you have time in the near future to further discuss your research?  I would be very interested in learning more about your work, and am willing to meet you any weekday after 2pm…”  For more information on contacting faculty check out how to contact a faculty advisor.

What procedures and protocols will I learn by working in a biomedical research lab?

It depends on the laboratory! If you are working in a biomedical research lab, you may be working with Drosophila flies, yeast, tissues, tumor samples, bacteria, cells, etc. You may also learn procedures such as Western blotting to detect proteins, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect DNA, cell culture, how to run microarrays, electron microscopy, cell proliferation assays, RNA extraction, genotyping, immunohistochemistry, etc. If these terms sound foreign to you, don’t worry! You will learn the techniques as needed in your lab.

When working in a biomedical research lab, will I be helping with a project, or working on my own research project?

It depends on the laboratory! Most experiences begin by helping a faculty member or graduate student with their experiments, and performing background literature review. During your time in the lab, lab members will teach you basic protocols that you will need to know in order to run experiments. As you become more familiar with the research going on in your lab, your faculty advisor may start to give you more responsibilities. Faculty mentors take into consideration one’s work ethic, enthusiasm, and dedication to the lab when considering whether to grant students with additional responsibilities in the lab. Depending on your acquired lab skills and level of interest, you may start to work on your own experiments, and eventually your own project. If you are interested in doing a thesis project, you should talk with your faculty mentor and academic advisor, both of whom will help guide you through that process.  The most important skill to bring as an undergraduate researcher is curiosity and an eagerness to learn.  No one expects you to know everything, but everyone expects you to be ready to learn, adapt, and contribute.

Are there opportunities to present my research?

Yes! Some common ways of presenting your research include presenting a poster at a research forum, giving a presentation to your mentor and co-workers at lab meetings, or through publishing a paper. If you want to present your research at a forum (also known as a conference), you will most likely be preparing a poster, and standing next it as you explain your research to those who stop by to learn more. Check out the forums page which has information about research forums at Ohio State and outside Ohio State. Also, be sure to check out Ohio State’s Denman Undergraduate Research Forum, which is Ohio State’s largest undergraduate research forum—it’s a lot of fun to present at the Denman! If you are interested in publishing your research in a scientific journal see this list of journal submission opportunities. Consider submitting a manuscript to Ohio State’s very own JUROS, or the Journal of Undergraduate Research at Ohio State! Be sure to ask your faculty mentor whether he or she knows of any opportunities to present your research either in research forums or in journals. Labs often submit their manuscripts to select scientific journals, so work with your faculty member to determine which journal is right for you.

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